Asymmetric warfare evolves in tragic directions

We would be wise to study Israel’s tactics and ensure our forces are ready for a new evolution in asymmetric warfare.

Two students watch the bombardment of Gaza on July 10. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Two students watch the bombardment of Gaza on July 10.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Among the greatest challenges facing modern military commanders is the imperative to “think like a terrorist.” As that was my last job in uniform, I know firsthand this is a task as distasteful as it is essential.
Prior to to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I headed the Games Red Team, which was assigned the role of adversary to the Canadian Armed Forces security plan. We devised a fictional terrorist cell and attack plan to test Canada’s defense of the Games and, in so doing, expose any flaws.
Viewing security through the lens of the perpetrator was a sobering assignment that, perhaps more than any other experience in my 43 years in the CAF, taught me the burden of decision-making faced by Western militaries in our time.
Counter-terrorism has reached a level of complexity, speed and moral dilemmas the likes of which were unimaginable a century ago. Post- 9/11, Western forces operate in highly complex environments, with plain-clothed terrorists embedding themselves among and exploiting their civilian populations. Non-state actors, be it al-Qaida, Taliban, or ISIS – the latest ugly jihadist incarnation – enjoy tremendous home-field advantage. Extremist movements rather than legitimate states, these groups aim to inflict maximum damage on Western forces while using high civilian casualties to wage a public relations war.
The current battle between Israel and various terror groups in Gaza, foremost among them Hamas, reflects an extreme version of this new phase of asymmetric warfare.
After having been hit by hundreds of missiles from Gaza since mid-June, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8. Israeli leaders did so in the full knowledge they are working within the narrowest of margins of error, both in Gaza and on the Israeli home front.
Israel’s strategic weakness has always been its limited geography (in total, Israel is about two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island). Hamas has starkly exposed that vulnerability through its unprecedented barrages of long-range missiles. Those weapons, many of which are provided by Iran, now threaten the majority of Israelis – more than five million civilians.
Israel’s Iron Dome system shoots down 90 percent of those destined for population centers, keeping Israeli casualties to a minimum. The psychological impact, however, can be likened to that experienced by Londoners in 1940, a 21st century blitz, albeit with iPhone apps to alert Israelis of incoming missiles. Were it not for the Iron Dome, the country would be wracked with destruction.
Indeed, the Iron Dome has saved lives on both sides by giving Israel’s military command the ability to carry out a paced, targeted campaign in Gaza, rather than a rushed ground invasion.
In addition to targeting Hamas missile launch pads and depots, the Israel Defense Forces has focused on destroying the homes of terrorist commanders in Gaza. More than homes, the residences of Hamas leaders are first their command centers and weapons storage sites. Nonetheless, Israel takes great pains to provide civilians with advance warning through text messages, phone calls, warning leaflets and sound bombs.
While this enables Hamas operatives to flee targeted sites minutes before air strikes, it likewise allows Israel to destroy terrorist infrastructure with minimal collateral damage.
This is not to diminish the loss of civilian life in Gaza; every non-combatant killed in war is a tragedy. But many of those who have died in Gaza were called by Hamas to congregate on the rooftops of buildings that Israel has warned will be targeted. A United Nations report released recently, in regard to civilian casualties in Gaza, stated: “In most cases, prior to the attacks, residents have been warned to leave, either via phone calls by the Israel military or by the firing of warning missiles.”
Former US general George Patton is reported to have said: “The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other (expletive) die for his.” Disturbingly, Hamas has turned this axiom on its head by using its people as human shields. As stated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, “We use missiles to protect civilians; Hamas use civilians to protect their missiles.”
Israel has been very clear its objective is to secure a long-term halt to missile fire from Gaza. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether Hamas will agree to a years-long de-escalation. One thing is certain.
The tactics used by Hamas are sure to be replicated by Islamist terror movements elsewhere. In the wake of rising jihadist movements in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Western militaries should not only do more to “think like a terrorist” as I once did. We would be wise to study Israel’s tactics and ensure our forces are ready for a new evolution in asymmetric warfare.
The author is a retired major-general in the Canadian Armed Forces.